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Who's Happier — Renter or Owner? Uncovering the Myths of Happiness

An interview with Sonja Lyubomirsky, author of 'The Myths of Happiness.'

Let’s start with a true-false test. I’ll tell you a supposed fact about happiness, and you decide whether you think it’s true or false.

1. Unexpected pleasures are the most rewarding. True or false?

2. Daily hassles impact our well-being more than major life events. True or false?

3. When it comes to sex, women require more novelty than men. True or false?

4. A smoking habit is not a bigger risk factor for heart disease as a troubled marriage. True or false?

5. Renters are happier than homeowners. True or false?

According to Sonja Lyubomirsky, all 5 statements are true. Yup, renters are happier and women want more novelty in sex than men. All based in science.

Sonja Lyubomirsky, Professor of Psychology at
the University of California, Riverside, is the author of The Myths of Happiness: What Should Make You Happy, but Doesn’t; What Shouldn’t Make You Happy, but Does. You can learn more at

Terrence McNally: Could you talk a bit about your path to the work you find yourself doing today?

Sonia Lyubomirsky: That’s a good question. I came to the US from Russia when I was ten years old. One of the first things I noticed is this huge cultural difference in happiness and the expression of happiness. People in Russia all look gloomy and they don’t talk to each other on the street. Here people smile; when they walk on the street, they say hi to you even if they don’t know you. I remember that as kind of formative insight.

I went to graduate school at Stanford, and on the very first day I met with my adviser, Lee Ross, one of the world’s experts on conflict and negotiation. So nothing to do with happiness. But for some reason we started talking about happiness. “What is happiness?” and “Why are some people happier than others?” We took a walk around the campus and that’s how it all began.

Back then the study of happiness was not considered a scientific topic. Only one person in the whole world was studying happiness: Ed Deener. That was 20 or so years ago. Things have really changed. Now, neuroscientists are studying well-being, and economists. Lots of people are talking about it.

McNally: So you got to Stanford graduate school not knowing that’s what you were going to focus on?

Lyubomirsky: That’s right…and then it began. We didn’t really know anything about happiness, so we started interviewing people to see the differences between happy and unhappy people. I felt insecure because it was such a novel topic of research.

McNally: I remember interviewing Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who is responsible for the study of flow. Based on his experiences in Hungary during WWII, he told me wanted to find a way to work in psychology to help people be happier. But he had to focus on creativity because in the 50’s that was as close as he could get.

Lyubomirsky: Even 20 or 30 years ago, Deener called it “subjective well-being” to make it sound more scientific.

McNally: Back then you didn’t go to school, you didn’t get grants, you certainly didn’t get tenure looking at things like happiness. Today, we’re used to seeing articles and quizzes in magazines about happiness; the self-help industry abounds with motivational speakers and gurus talking about it, but your work is rooted in science. How do you study happiness?

Lyubomirsky: There’s a lot of wisdom in the self-help domain, but I also think that there’s a special kind of wisdom that you can get from studying something systematically. If you have an illness, and you want to get treatment or have surgery or go on a drug, don’t you want to make sure that treatment or drug or surgery has been tested to make sure that it’s effective? I say the same thing about happiness. If you want to be a happier person, how do you go about it? I think it’s important not only listen to your grandmother or a motivational speaker or a clinician, but to look at what research has shown. In my research I do what are called “happiness interventions” - basically experiments to see what makes people happier and how and why. Instead of testing a new treatment, I’m testing a happiness strategy.

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